All posts by Lewis Pike

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.

Is it possible to make an everlasting gobstopper?

It’s probably not possible to make a gobstopper that will last forever – or at least one you would want to put in your mouth. But let’s see if we can at least get somewhere close to an ’everlasting gobstopper’ anyway! We may have to make some sacrifices along the way…

How gobstoppers are made

Gobstoppers are normally made by slowly layering flavoured liquid sugar onto a solid core of chewing gum or sugar. As the different layers build up, the gobstopper gets bigger and bigger. The main ingredient in gobstoppers is sugar; all other ingredients such as natural and artificial colours and flavours only form a small percentage of the finished product.


 

The Guru everlasting gobstopper

As you suck a gobstopper, the sugar layers dissolve in your mouth and it shrinks. If you’re willing to have something inert – so there’s no sugar, no flavour and no colour change – then yes, it’s perfectly possible to make a gobstopper that won’t get smaller when you suck it. Although I suggest you don’t actually try it, a glass sphere like a marble should last for well over your lifetime and probably not show any measurable loss in size. Alternatively, there are biosafe plastics such as acrylic plastic (a material used to make plastic dentures) which could easily be moulded and set into a specific shape. Another biosafe material would be the gum base of chewing gum; in modern chewing gum this gum base is made from a mix of synthetic rubbers, which could be easily set into a ball for our gobstopper. Gum base doesn’t biodegrade but the enzymes in saliva may ultimately start to break it down (sadly, there is no official record of the longest time spent chewing one piece of gum). In theory, using such material could be used to make something that can be chewed/sucked indefinitely.

The real problem for engineering a truly everlasting gobstopper would be introducing flavour into our non-dissolvable ball. The sensation of flavour essentially means flavour molecules moving from the gobstopper and diffusing to your taste buds. Technically speaking, this means the gobstopper will eventually lose the flavour molecules it contains. And as soon as this happens, it’s not going to be everlasting anymore. The only way around this problem would be to cheat in someway. One way of slowing down our gobstopper losing its flavour would be to ‘encapsulate’ the flavour in it. The process of encapsulation would allow us to lock the flavour molecules throughout the gobstopper and delay their release, allowing for a longer and more controlled taste. Alternatively, plastics can be impregnated with flavour, which, it is claimed, will last for many years (you can buy dog chews made of such materials). However, even using this method our gobstopper would eventually become tasteless.

Of course, a completely different idea would be to have a gobstopper that could be ‘recharged’ by dipping it in something flavoursome. In theory, the customer could pick an entirely new flavour once the old one had finished. What flavour would you choose?

By Lewis Pike and Nathan Beal

Photo Credit: Beardy Git via Compfight cc


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Article by Lewis Pike

January 5, 2015

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.


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Is there a reason why we get so tired while travelling?

Image: Roel Hemkes via flickr
Image: Roel Hemkes via flickr

Like you, I’ve always believed that it’s the vibrations that make us tired when we travel. We have finely tuned reflexes to help keep us upright – we’re not really designed for an ever-shifting chair. Our muscles react to every bump and shake to keep a steady posture (the muscles that do this are called the postural muscles and are mostly found around the ‘core’ of the body). These tiny contractions are completely involuntary and are controlled by the most primitive parts of the brain (such as the brainstem). Coupled to this, travelling means holding your body in the same position for a fairly long time – which could ultimately add up to quite a lot of energy and muscle fatigue over prolonged periods.

A simple experiment can prove how your muscles are needed just to stay still: try standing on one leg and not falling over. You will notice that you muscles are continually moving and twitching to keep you upright. This is happening all the time to a lesser degree whether we are stood or sitting in a moving chair. Personally I suffer from a bad back and any form of travel always seems to make it feel worse – so undoubtedly this added muscle strain contributes.

There is also the suggestion that sheer boredom (with the monotony of the journey) contributes to this feeling of fatigue. Getting out of your seat and walking about while on a train or coach can not only ease some of the boredom but can fight symptoms of fatigue: research shows that even gentle exercise has marked improvements in energy levels.

Now, for the more ‘out there’ explanation…

A friend of mine is an animist. She thinks we get tired when travelling because the spirits that animate us can only move at the speeds our bodies naturally move. We get low energy levels because we leave them behind, and feel better when they catch up with us. Of course being spirits, they’re bound to follow geography; so if we fly to New Zealand say, they will take the shortcut through the Earth to track us, before popping up to meet us. Presumably, spirits have quite a low top speed, meaning the further we go, the longer we will need to wait until we feel back to normal. So now you also know the reason for why jetlag lasts so long….

Answer by Lewis Pike and the Guru team

 

Article by Lewis Pike

November 21, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.


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Should non-scientists be involved in peer review?

Image: Agriculture, Food and Rural communities via flickr
Image: Agriculture, Food and Rural communities via flickr

In my opinion, no…

Peer review is the most widely used way to check scientific research before it sees the light of day. It isn’t only used in science – most academic disciplines use it. The process, just like being tried by a jury of your peers, means your work is assessed by those who, broadly speaking, are your equals. These ‘reviewers’ are not a random set of scientists but are scientists working in the same/a similar field to you – so if you’re a biochemist, you don’t need to worry about being asked to review a leading astrophysics’ paper!

It is a debatable question about whether science should rely on peer review as much as it does – It isn’t a perfect system and it certainly tends to bias toward papers that give positive and exciting results. Experiments that give negative or ambiguous results are less likely to make the cut – which, in certain circumstances, could be even more beneficial than positive results! For example, in the medical sciences and drug development, it would be extremely important to know if a drug doesn’t work.

In my opinion, I think peer review in its current format makes more sense than any other quality control system used (despite the issues mentioned above, which to me, seem solvable). Moreover, having non-specialists and non-scientists check through papers that are published in peer reviewed journals will not help – just go to a good library or shop and pick up a copy of Nature and try to read the articles in there and you’ll understand what I mean. Peer reviewed journals like Nature contain cutting edge research papers. No one reads Nature just for fun – front line researchers dip in, pick up the occasional paper that is relevant to them, and usually ignore the rest. And science students do the same!

There are situations where having non-scientists involved more heavily does make sense – journals aimed at a public understanding of science, for example. Obviously Guru is not a journal, but the content contributes as one form of public understanding within science. At the risk of mentioning other magazines, New Scientist publish papers that appeal to the informed general public. And while they are perhaps too technical for my mum they also lack the quality and depth of a journal and so cannot be used for a student or a researcher in the field. Nor are they peer reviewed. Having non-scientists involved in the writing process of such articles would certainly be a benefit.

Peer review does allow for weird and unexpected claims to be examined on a wider scale – even if it’s challenging what the established scientists believe is true. And whether the establishment finally identifies the mistakes or heaves a sigh of relief, as in the ‘faster than light neutrinos’ controversy a couple of years ago, or even changes its mind, as with Darwin, Einstein and Mullis (who developed PCR).

Answer by Lewis Pike

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below to have your say…

 

Article by Lewis Pike

September 1, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.


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How many organisms live in my house?

Organism HouseThis is a tricky one to answer because the total number of uninvited houseguests depends on a few different factors, and involves an awful lot of educated guesswork.

Bacteria are the biggest source of cohabiters. They live almost everywhere around the house – coating every surface imaginable, and each bacterial cell is a living organism, happily going about its business. Warm, moist places harbour the most bacteria, as do places where there is food or faeces (or both).

Let’s start to tally up the bacteria from around the home. As you might expect, the kitchen and the bathroom are hotspots for microscopic metropolises.

A US study found that a kitchen drain can contain somewhere around 50 million bacteria, a bathtub 20 million, a kitchen sponge 1.5 million, and a toilet bowl over 500 million! Adding in some more for the combined inhabitants of less bacteria-infested areas like work surfaces and taps brings us to a total of roughly 700 million bacteria on household objects.

However, a much higher number of guests live in the dust on the floor – up 6700 bacteria per milligram of house dust. An average 3-bedroom house has a floor area of 85m2 and will contain about (time to get out the vacuum), adding up to a total of 6.7 billion bacteria on our floors!

Dust is also home to dust mites – microscopic critters that live off our dead skin cells and can cause allergies and asthma – not the most pleasant of house guests. There are roughly 300 mites per gram of dust and as many as 6 million per bed (sweet dreams), adding another 20 million or so beasts to our total.

But by far the largest population of organisms live inside the human body itself. The cosy warmth of a human body is a perfect home for bacteria, and there’s a reasonable estimate that there are about 100 trillion bacterial cells living in an adult human (that’s about ten times more than we actually have!). Most of these are in the intestines and are generally helpful, aiding tasks like digestion.

Let’s say that a four bedroom house has that average family of 2 adults and 1.8 kids. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that 1.8 kids approximates to 1 adult – and that there are no pets. So that makes about 300 trillion bacteria.

Add in the 700 million bacteria from household objects, the 6.7 billion from the floor, plus 20 million dust mites (and 3.8 people) and you get… still about 300 trillion living organisms in a home.

For reference, 300 trillion is roughly three thousand times more than the total number of people who have ever lived. In other words, quite a lot. So just be grateful that you don’t have to cook breakfast for them all each morning.

Answered by Lewis

References:

Kärkkäinen, et al. (2010). Determination of bacterial load in house dust using qPCR, chemical markers and culture. Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 12(3), 759-768. DOI: 10.1039/B917937B

Human Microbiome Project Consortium. (2012). A framework for human microbiome research. Nature, 486(7402), 215-221. DOI: 10.1038/nature11209

Colloff, Matthew J. (2009). Dust Mites, 304

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (2009),House Dust Allergy

Web MD (2007) Top Spots for Bacteria at Home

Image credit: Kali on flickr

Article by Lewis Pike

June 24, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.


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